Bristling with traditional Southern culture, small towns and scenic byways, South Carolina can be a charming state for a drive. Yet, rapid growth is making some of its cities the most sprawling and fastest growing in the United States, and the pressures are putting more drivers on the road. While it’s a friendly state, it also has some of the highest auto fatality rates in the country, something experts say is fueled by poor road conditions and bad drivers.
Nevertheless, from the towns on the Atlantic Coast to Greenville and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, driving remains the best way to get around. Here are some things you should know before hitting the highway in South Carolina.
From the freeways of Greenville to the coastal roads near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina’s car culture is rooted in building and racing vehicles. The state has been a powerhouse of automotive innovation and is home to some of the most famous raceways.
Its automotive history dates back to 1916 when the Rock Hill Buggy Co. started manufacturing handmade sedans and five-passenger touring cars. The Anderson, as it was known, was considered the most successful automobile ever manufactured in the South and sold 7,000 units by the time the company closed in 1925. That love for early auto history is memorialized in a number of auto museums. The Bennett Classics auto museum in Forest City features approximately 70 vehicles including Model Ts, Mack trucks, and a 1963 Ford Mayberry Sheriffs car. The Wheels of Yesteryear museum in Myrtle Beach features more than 50 vintage American muscle cars and trucks along with automobile memorabilia from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. And in the town of Greer, the BMW Zentrum showcases the company’s history of innovation with exhibits on BMW aircrafts, motorcycles and automobiles. Popular Mechanics called the BMW 760 the “unofficial” car of South Carolina where it sells at 935 percent of the national average.
While drivers here are generally tame on the highways, high-speed professional auto racing is a favorite past time. Established in 1950, the legendary Darlington Raceway hosts NASCAR events with world-class drivers. Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw features a 2.27-mile road course with auto and motorcycle racing. And at the NASCAR Racing Experience at the Myrtle Beach Speedway, anyone can play speed demon and test their skills behind the wheel of a race car.
The state’s auto manufacturing industry has also seen strong growth in recent years. BMW has a strong presence in the state with more than 8,000 workers at its campus in Spartanburg. Volvo is also currently constructing a 2.3 million square-foot facility in Ridgeville and will produce 60,000 vehicles per year starting by the end of 2018. And Daimler is preparing to open a $500 million plant near Charleston to manufacturer its Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans.
Despite its relatively small size, South Carolina has the 4th-largest state-maintained highway system in the nation with 41,444 miles of state highway. And the state’s drivers are logging a lot of miles. The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration reports South Carolina drivers averaged 16,020 miles in 2015, considerably more than the U.S. national average of 14,425.
The trend is being driven by stronger economic growth. This puts more workers on the roads and driving greater distances. Economists forecast that the state’s economy will grow 3.8 percent in 2017, nearly double the 2.1 percent forecasted growth rate of the national economy. In recent years, a national study ranked Greenville and Columbia as some of the most “sprawling” in the country.
From Sprawling Metros to Quiet Byways and Quaint Southern Towns
South Carolina is a small state with a total area of 32,000 miles, making it the 40th largest state in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A number of major interstates pass through South Carolina, including I-20, I-95, and I-26. And from the coastal areas around Charleston to the sprawling metro area of Greenville and the Blue Ridge mountains in the Northwestern part of the state, driving remains the best means of transportation.
Rapid growth in places like Greenville is putting more vehicles on the highway. The Census Bureau recently ranked it as the fourth-fastest growing city in the South with a growth rate of 5.8 percent. While traffic in the state’s urban areas is relatively mild compared to other cities, congestion levels are increasing by an average of 4 percent, according to the TomTom Index.
Outside of its bustling urban areas, South Carolina is also home to more than 20 scenic byways with 450 miles of roads that wind through natural areas and past historic sites. Highway 11, also known as the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway, winds its way 112 miles along the northwest corner of the state and skirts the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Despite their charm, many of South Carolina’s rural roads can be dangerous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 80 percent of the fatal accidents in the state in 2013 occurred on rural roads, a significantly higher rate than the 54 percent of fatalities nationwide that occur on rural roads. Bill Ross, executive director of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, said the roads are “just in horrible condition all across the state.”
These poor road conditions could be a contributing factor to the high number of accidents in rural areas. Some roads are noted for large potholes, blind corners, untrimmed trees and poorly marked lines. The Reason Foundation found that in 2013, the latest year of data analyzed, South Carolina spent the least per state-maintained mile. Non-profit research association TRIP said that 29 percent of the state’s roads are in poor condition while 35 percent are in mediocre condition.
Some parts of South Carolina can see moderate snow at times which can create challenging driving conditions in both rural and urban areas. The South Carolina Department of Transportation maintains a Winter Weather Road Conditions System to provide updates on roads several times per day or as conditions warrant.
Filling up the Tank
South Carolina has relatively inexpensive gas prices compared to the rest of the country. As of early-June 2017 the American Automobile Association reported the average cost of a gallon of gas in the state to be only $2.04, significantly less than the national average of $2.37. Drivers can help save on gas by keeping their tires properly inflated, avoiding stop and go traffic, and driving a consistent speed.
While the Tax Foundation reports South Carolina has the third to lowest gas taxes in the nation, taxes could be on the rise. In early-May 2017, the state legislature overrode Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of a bill to raise the state gas tax by two center per year for six years. Legislators in the state are also eyeing a law that would institute new fees for hybrid and electric vehicles that share the roads but escape gas taxes. If enacted, the law would require the 44,000 hybrid vehicle owners in the state to pay a $60 fee every two years. Electric vehicle owners would have to pay a $120 fee every two years.
South Carolina’s unemployment rate mirrors national trends and has been on a steady decline since 2010. A state’s unemployment rate can affect accident and fatality rates because it influences how many people are on the roads. Michael A. Morrisey, Ph.D., professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health told ScienceDaily.com, that an improving economy typically correlates with more deaths on the road. Morrisey said each one percentage point decrease in the overall unemployment rate is associated with a 9 percent increase in national fatalities.
The National Safety Council released a report last year that said traffic fatalities were up 8 percent nationwide in 2015, the largest percentage year-over-year jump in the number of crash fatalities in 50 years. South Carolina saw the fourth-largest increase with a 16 percent rise in the number of auto accident fatalities. Vehicle collisions have also been rising in recent years, from 101,800 collisions in 2011 to 119,200 collisions in 2014.
Distracted, Dangerous and Drunk Driving
Distracted driving can be a big problem in South Carolina and can come with big consequences due to its poorly-maintained roads. A 2016 study by CarInsuranceComparison.com analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and ranked the state’s drivers the third worst in the nation based on fatalities, speeding and careless driving. South Carolina has made the top 5 worst rankings for the past four years.
While there are no state laws against hand-held phone calls or other calls, the state does have a law that bans all drivers from texting while driving. The Department of Insurance encourages drivers to take an online pledge not to text and drive.
Driving distractions are partly fueling the state’s high vehicle fatality rate, which according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is one of the highest in the country and twice the national average. In 2015, there were 909 fatal crashes resulting in 977 deaths. And during that year, more than 70 percent of auto fatalities occurred in rural areas, compared to half of fatalities nationwide to the nationwide average of 50 percent occurring in rural areas.
The best way to help stay safe is to reduce distractions in the vehicle. Drivers can minimize their risk of distraction by reducing fidgeting, avoiding their cell phones and being cognizant of how they interact with passengers. South Carolina has also had a historically high rate of drunken driving. A 2015 study by CarInsuranceComparison.com ranked it the fifth worst state for drunk driving based on its high fatality rates and what it described as a lack of laws and enforcement. In 2015, the South Carolina Department of Public Safety started its Sober or Slammer program with public awareness campaigns, additional patrols and public safety checkpoints.
South Carolina’s new State Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP), also known as Target Zero, is a comprehensive safety plan that provides a coordinated framework towards eliminating traffic deaths and reducing severe injuries. Target Zero notes that the top factors in fatal and severe injure auto crashes in the state include roadway departure (42.6 percent), not wearing a seat belt (41.3 percent), speed (34.9 percent), and impaired driving (25.8 percent).
South Carolina has a graduated driver licensing program designed for minors. Residents can apply for a Class D beginner permit at the age of 15. Those under age 18 must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian to co-sign the application. Applicants are also required to bring proper identification and must pass the vision and knowledge tests. Drivers under a permit may only drive between the hours of 6 a.m. and midnight with a licensed driver who is at least 21 years old.
Once they have held a beginners permit for at least 180 days, drivers are eligible for a conditional license. Those under the age of 17 must also submit a Certification of School Attendance, have completed a state-approved driver’s education course, and have 40 hours of practice driving with a parent or guardian.
Drivers may apply for a full unrestricted license after holding a conditional license for one year with no traffic offenses or at-fault accidents.
A study by CarInsurance.com ranked South Carolina the 22nd safest state for teen drivers based on accident rates, fatality rates, drunk driving rates and the effectiveness of licensing programs. The state’s Alive at 25 program teaches a 4.5-hour “survival course” focusing on behaviors, decision-making and risks facing young drivers every time they get behind the wheel. Since the program started in 2007, the state’s death toll among drivers ages 15 to 24 has fallen by 37 percent. Parents can also help keep their young drivers, and other drivers, safe by monitoring teens’ driving habits with new technology.
All drivers are required to carry adequate auto insurance in South Carolina. At a bare minimum, drivers must have auto insurance that covers:
- $25,000 for bodily injury or death of one person in any one accident
- $50,000 for bodily injury or death of two or more people in any one accident
- $25,000 for injury to or destruction of property of others in any one accident
South Carolina is one of a handful of states that requires motorists to carry uninsured bodily injury and property damage coverage. This insurance is already bundled in most policies and is designed to cover a driver’s own injuries or damage in the event an accident is caused by someone without insurance.
The rising rate of auto accidents due to distracted driving is also causing insurers to raise premiums. The South Carolina Insurance Department found that rates rose nearly 9 percent in 2016, following average hikes of 3.2 percent annually over the previous three years. Ray Farmer, director of South Carolina’s Department of Insurance, said distracted driving has played a big role. “You can’t go on the road without seeing someone – it doesn’t matter the age – texting, talking on the phone or reading emails,” Farmer said.
With a long history of racing and automobile manufacturing, South Carolina is entrenched in a proud culture of automotive prowess. Yet beyond the racetrack and factory floor, the state is challenged with some of the worst driving conditions in the country. Distracted driving and speeding contribute to a high vehicle fatality rate in rural areas, and impaired driving is a persistent problem throughout the state. While its highway risks are real, South Carolina still offers some of the country’s most scenic byways. Buckle up, drive defensively, and enjoy the ride.